Mathematics behind HIV vaccine research

Team has seen promising results in primates

Geoffrey and George Hoffmann hope to develop a vaccine that could protect people from HIV. The father and son team co-founded a Vancouver-based biotechnology company in 2003 called Network Immunology to work toward this goal.

Dad Geoffrey Hoffmann, who taught at the University of B.C. for nearly 20 years, helped develop the network theory of immunology alongside eventual Nobel Prize co-winner Niels Kaj Jerne in Switzerland the 1970s. Now, Network Immunology is applying these theories with treatments and vaccines.

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Son George reports results of a vaccine trial on a small group of primates were promising, with the animals developing antibodies to three different strains of HIV. Now, researchers and immunologists on Network Immunology's team are developing an optimized version of the vaccine for their next study, for which they need to raise a minimum of $200,000.

Jerne postulated in the 1970s that the immune system is a network of cells and antibodies, just as the brain is a network of neurons. "[Jerne] noticed [antibodies] don't just recognize things that are foreign, but they also recognize and interact with each other as part of this network," George said.

This take on the immune system sees it as having a memory and a sense of "self."

The network theory became the predominant way of understanding the immune system, with thousands of studies published, until the end of the '70s, according to George.

But a paradox arose in the 1980s that baffled scientists and prompted many of them to abandon the network theory. George said scientists started focusing on the details of the immune system rather than trying to map the big picture.

But Geoffrey, a physics prof who also headed an experimental immunology lab within UBC's microbiology department, focused on solving the paradox using mathematical models. He published a solution in at least one peer-reviewed journal in the 1990s.

The idea of an immune network with a sense of self compels George, a yoga instructor who's organizing a large meditation forum in Vancouver.

"I'm really interested in mindfulness practices, contemplative practices, for wellbeing and there's a link certainly between the mind and the immune system," he said.

Richard Harrigan, director of the lab program for the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, says it would be "marvelous" if an effective vaccine were available. "There was an 'if' there because it turns out that it's been incredibly difficult to make progress in the area of HIV vaccines," he said.

What makes it tricky to develop an effective vaccine, Harrigan says, is everyone with HIV has his or her own variation of the virus. He said Network Immunology's development of a vaccine must be more than a decade away and advances in therapies are making a difference now.

"Not just on keeping people alive for almost their normal life span, but the impact of treating people who are HIV infected reduces the amount of virus in them and that renders them less infectious, so it's almost like having the impact of a vaccine," Harrigan said.

But the Hoffmanns are seeking donations and investments of any amount to further a thorough understanding of the immune network, which could help prevent not just HIV but also autoimmune disorders such as lupus, diabetes and multiple sclerosis.

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